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Catholic leaders urge permanent legislative solution for Dreamers

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Irene, a Bay Area college student and DACA recipient, speaks during a news conference organized by the Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County. (Jaya Padmanabhan/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Let’s talk religion. In a statement rejecting the rescindment of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program by the Trump administration in September 2017, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops had this to say: “The Church has recognized and proclaimed the need to welcome young people. ‘Whoever welcomes one of these children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me’ (Mark 9:37).” The statement also urged “the Catholic faithful and all people of goodwill” to contact their representatives in Congress to urge some resolution for Dreamers.

Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone of the Archdiocese of San Francisco added his voice to the DACA discussion.

“It is more urgent now than ever that Congress act on behalf of millions of our friends, neighbors, co-workers and relatives who find themselves in this situation, enabling them to keep their families together and to continue to build their lives as our fellow Americans, just as every generation of immigrants has before.”

Since September, Congress has attempted many times, and failed each time, to come up with a solution for Dreamers. This latest attempt on Feb. 15 — when the Senate struck down four measures, including the one favored heavily by President Donald Trump — has created a vacuum, sucking up the fibers of stability for about 1.8 million people who were brought to America as young children and who have called America their home most of their lives.

Trump urged members of the Senate to oppose all but his own proposal, which, while it included amnesty for 1.8 million Dreamers, also included funding for the Trump border wall, suspension of the diversity visa and severely curtailed sponsorship of family members for legal immigration. The bill was struck down overwhelmingly in the Senate and fell short by 21 votes of the needed 60 votes.

It is frustrating to be confronted with how ineffectual and ineffective Congress is, even on an issue that most people agree on. A Fox News Poll found that 83 percent of Americans support granting work permits or citizenship to Dreamers. And, according to a National Public Radio/Ipsos poll, 65 percent of Americans are in favor of giving legal status to Dreamers.

Irene, a college student in the Bay Area, is a DACA recipient. She was born in Puebla, Mexico, and brought to America when she was 1 year old. Her story is not unique, but it’s worth telling because she embodies the American spirit as a determined and resolute leader and change agent.

Irene’s parents did not tell her she was undocumented until she began to apply to college in the junior year of high school.

“I was going to join the military, and that’s when I found out I couldn’t because of my status,” Irene told me. “I also realized that if I couldn’t join the military then it would be very hard for me to go to college as well.”

In 2012, she applied for DACA and began attending community college. DACA opened doors for Irene, and she finally felt as though she belonged on campus and could be just like her peers. She ran for student government and was elected president.

“With that came a lot of responsibilities to advocating for our students and advocating for them to have better resources on campus and for them to feel like it is a welcoming environment,” Irene said.

It’s unclear what’s going to happen next to people like Irene.

In a tweet, Sen.Kamala Harris, D-Calif., put numbers to the impending crisis.

“Approximately 19,000 Dreamers have lost DACA status since Trump created this crisis. That’s 19,000 young people who must live in fear of deportation. After March 5, that number explodes – increasing by about 1,000 per day. Congress must act to protect them,” Harris wrote.

I believe Congress will be unable to arrive at a permanent solution for Dreamers by using one heavily favored program as a stepping stone to reform other divisive immigration policies. What we need is a deal to provide amnesty for Dreamers, and a better way to secure our borders. Everything else, including the diversity visa, should be handled as part of a broader immigration reform strategy.

At a news conference organized by the Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County, Bishop Patrick McGrath, a naturalized U.S. citizen originally from Ireland, talked about the fear he sees on his parishioners’ faces as they confront the reality of being separated from their loved ones.

“They [immigration officials] should deport me instead,” McGrath exclaimed, adding that the Dreamers had more of a stake in the United States than he does.

Other faiths have also pushed to resolve the status of undocumented immigrants brought here as children, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and Behind the Arc Jewish Action.

When I asked Irene what she would do if her DACA status expired, she said, “I’m going to keep dreaming. I just have to keep going. There’s no other way. I can’t go back. I can’t turn around.”

If we’re talking about the right thing to do for Irene and others like her, let’s listen to what our faith leaders have to say. Pray for a permanent legislative solution before the March 5 deadline.

Jaya Padmanabhan can be reached at jaya.padmanabhan@gmail.com. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan. In Brown Type covers immigrant issues in San Francisco.

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